Terry Jones, Life of Brian director and Monty Python founder, dies aged 77
Jones, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2015, was the main directing force in Python’s films, as well a prolific creator of TV documentaries and children’s books
Terry Jones: the Monty Python director – and a very naughty boy
Wed 22 Jan 2020 13.45 GMTFirst published on Wed 22 Jan 2020 12.48 GMT
Terry Jones, founder member of Monty Python and director of three of Python’s celebrated feature films, has died aged 77, his family have announced. In a statement they said: “Terry passed away on the evening of 21 January 2020 at the age of 77 with his wife Anna Soderstrom by his side after a long, extremely brave but always good humoured battle with a rare form of dementia, FTD.”
“Over the past few days his wife, children, extended family and many close friends have been constantly with Terry as he gently slipped away at his home in North London. We have all lost a kind, funny, warm, creative and truly loving man whose uncompromising individuality, relentless intellect and extraordinary humour has given pleasure to countless millions across six decades.”
In 2016, Jones and his family revealed he had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia a year earlier, and he became a public face of the illness – appearing at a Bafta Cymru awards ceremony to highlight its effects and being interviewed in conjunction with longtime friend and collaborator Michael Palin in 2017. Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Society paid tribute, saying: “We were lucky enough to work with Terry and his family when he joined us for our London Memory Walk in 2017 and his support really helped inspire others to unite against dementia. We are truly grateful for his aid in raising awareness and much-needed funds.”
After huge success with Python in the 1970s and early 80s, including the feature films Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, Jones went on to work on a huge variety of projects. With Palin, he created the successful TV series Ripping Yarns and forged a post-Python directorial career with Personal Services, Erik the Viking and The Wind in the Willows. He made a series of TV documentaries (specialising in medieval history), wrote nearly 20 children’s books, and contributed a string of comment pieces for the Guardian and Observer denouncing the “war on terror”.
Palin said: “He was far more than one of the funniest writer-performers of his generation, he was the complete Renaissance comedian – writer, director, presenter, historian, brilliant children’s author, and the warmest, most wonderful company you could wish to have.”
Fellow Python John Cleese said: “It feels strange that a man of so many talents and such endless enthusiasm, should have faded so gently away,” adding: “Of his many achievements, for me the greatest gift he gave us all was his direction of Life of Brian. Perfection.”
Born in Colwyn Bay, Wales, in 1942, Jones moved to England as a child, growing up in Surrey. While at Oxford studying English literature, he met fellow student Palin while performing in the Oxford Revue. After university, along with Palin, Jones wrote and performed in a string of TV shows alongside other future stars of British comedy – including Cleese, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, Eric Idle, Peter Cook and David Jason – on The Frost Report, Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Complete and Utter History of Britain.
In 1969, Palin and Jones joined Cambridge graduates Cleese and Graham Chapman – along with Idle and animator Terry Gilliam – on a BBC comedy sketch show. Eventually broadcast under the title Monty Python’s Flying Circus, it ran until 1974, with Jones largely writing with Palin (complementing Cleese’s partnership with Chapman). Seemingly chaotic, frequently surreal and formally daring, Monty Python’s Flying Circus would became one of the most influential shows in BBC history, revolutionising comedy formats, spawning scores of catchphrases, and inspiring an entire generation of comedians. Jones’s fondness for female impersonation was a key feature of the show, as was his erudite writing.
However, Jones was becoming more interested in directing. He later told the Guardian: “You not only act in the things – you’ve got to actually start directing the things as well. When we were doing Python the TV show, I was a real pain in the neck.” After the sketch-compilation feature And Now for Something Completely Different (released in 1971 with the ultimate intention of breaking the show in the US), the troupe embarked on an original film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Jones got his chance to direct, in conjunction with Gilliam. He was very much signed up to Python’s democratic instinct: “If all six of us laughed at something, then we all felt, ‘That’s OK, we can go ahead with that.’ And, for me, it was just a question of getting that on the screen, getting that moment of us sitting around the read-through, that moment where we all laughed.”
Jones took over the Pythons’ next film, The Life of Brian, as a solo director, with Gilliam opting to concentrate on the film’s design. Backed by George Harrison’s HandMade films and released in 1979, the religious satire proved a major commercial hit as well as sparking global controversy. Jones made a memorable screen contribution as Brian’s mother, squawking to the assembled worshippers: “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”
Jones then directed the Python’s 1983 release, The Meaning of Life, on an even more elaborate scale, stitching together sketches, musical numbers and complex effects scenes. The film also contains arguably Jones’s most famous on-screen character: the giant Mr Creosote, who explodes after a final “wafer-thin mint”.
With the Python team agreeing to make no more feature films, Jones was free to branch out. Personal Services, a comedy based on the real-life story of suburban brothel-keeper Cynthia Payne was released in 1987. He followed this up in 1989 with Erik the Viking, which starred Tim Robbins as a reluctant pillager, and was based on his own children’s book published in 1983.
As well as Erik the Viking, Jones was able to indulge his own fervent interest in ancient and medieval history in TV series, including Crusades (1995), Medieval Lives (2004) and Barbarians (2006), which he presented with infectious enthusiasm. He also published two books on Chaucer and created the kids’ TV cartoon Blazing Dragons, which ran for two seasons from 1996-98 and told the history of chivalry from the dragons’ point of view. Jones was also a prolific writer of children’s books, including self-originated fairytales such as Nicobobinus.
Jones became a vociferous opponent of the Iraq war, and published a collection of his newspaper columns and other writings in the 2004 book Terry Jones’s War on the War on Terror.
His final directorial credit was the 2015 comedy Absolutely Anything, in which all four surviving Python members participated, but it received an unenthusiastic reception.
Jones was married twice: between 1970 and 2012 to biochemist Alison Telfer, with whom he had two children, and in 2012 to Anna Söderström, with whom he had one child.
Terry Jones should be remembered for so much more than Monty Python
As the comedy community bids farewell to Terry Jones, we should remember him for his many talents – from history documentaries and directing feature films to treatises on Chaucer
By Mark Braxton
Wednesday, 22nd January 2020 at 4:41 pm
We knew that Terry Jones had been ill with dementia, but his death on Monday at the age of 77 still came as a shock to the entertainment world.
Floods of tributes swamped social media, reflecting the affection he inspired through his many and varied projects from the 1960s through to the noughties.
A driving force behind the Monty Python ensemble – in their ground-breaking Flying Circus TV series (1969–74), their envelope-pushing films and their adored stage shows – Jones nevertheless developed other successful careers, in the fields of history and children’s literature.
Born in Colwyn Bay in 1942, Terry Jones studied at Oxford, where he met Michael Palin, and pre-Python he wrote for The Frost Report, Twice a Fortnight (a sketch show with Palin, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie) and ITV children’s show Do Not Adjust Your Set.
But it was Monty Python’s Flying Circus that first endeared Jones to me and to many – with his fearless capacity to inhabit any role that he was given, often by himself. Jones was a leading light in a story John Cleese told me last year about the Pythons first getting together – Oxford University’s Jones and Palin with Cambridge alumni Cleese, Chapman and Idle (Carol Cleveland and animator Terry Gilliam were soon added to the mix)…
“It was nerve-racking at the start because after we’d had this extraordinary meeting with [BBC comedy head] Michael Mills in which he gave us 13 programmes, we were anxious for a bit because we had one or two meetings that got absolutely nowhere – until dear old Terry Jones said, ‘Well let’s just go home and write.’ And then after a few days we had a read-through at Terry’s flat in Camberwell, and we started laughing at what the others had written, what we each had written. And that was a marvellous moment.”
An early sketch that was a favourite of mine, and one that would get played to death on my vinyl record of Monty Python, was Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, in which Jones’s eponymous classical composer kept being sidetracked by Eric Idle’s interviewer into revealing the reason for his unusual nickname.
Jones stood out for taking on many of Python’s more extreme creations (see Mr Creosote in the 1983 film The Meaning of Life), and by general consensus was the funniest Python at playing women.
As Sir Michael Palin told Radio Times last year, “There were certain sort of caricature women that we had to play ourselves. Then there were women-women that Carol played very well. But a lot of people would say, “Well why didn’t you have women playing Terry’s mother?” Well, because Terry could play his mother better than anybody! And that’s what a lot of Terry’s characters were based upon.”
Terry’s “Pepperpot” female character was a comedy staple of the 1970s, and his shrill voice would ring out in playgrounds up and down the land, where Pythons were like comedy gods and their characters were mimicked by young fans – many of whom were probably too young to watch the post-watershed TV series.
The later episodes of Flying Circus became more experimental, with longer-form sketches that Palin says were a basis for Ripping Yarns, a comedy anthology series that he wrote with Jones – a pilot programme called Tomkinson’s Schooldays aired in early 1976 and two series followed in 1977 and ’79. Jones and Palin paired up to write many Python sketches, so it was no surprise when they teamed up again.
The mini-comedy films of Ripping Yarns were an absolute joy, spoofing the Boy’s Own style of adventure stories in episodes that were set in a First World War prison, India in 1914, 1930s Huddersfield and even 1920s Maidenhead (my home town!).
Ripping Yarns co-writers Michael Palin and Terry Jones as two of the masters at Graybridge public school in the pilot episode, Tomkinson’s Schooldays
Jones showed his gift for direction in the Monty Python films The Holy Grail (with Gilliam), Life of Brian (in which the courageous Jones also appeared as a naked hermit with only a long beard protecting his modesty) and The Meaning of Life.
He went on to direct non-Python projects, too, from the Cynthia Payne-inspired comedy Personal Services to The Wind in the Willows, in which he starred in full green-face makeup as Toad.
Another string to his bow was to prove hugely successful for Jones. He wrote many stories on ancient and medieval history (Chaucer’s Knight, Medieval Lives, Barbarians) and many for children (Fairy Tales, Nicobobinus, The Beast with a Thousand Teeth and Fantastic Stories).
The last book was adapted for Jackanory in 1993, when he told Radio Times, “They’re all set very much in the world of the traditional fairy story, with ogres and castles and talking beasts,” says Jones. “Whenever I write a new story I try it out on my neighbours’ son, Tom, to see if it works. My own kids are both grown up now, but I find Tom a very reliable critic.”
Jones publicising Jackanory in RT in 1993. Surprisingly it was his first acquaintance with the show
At the time Jones revealed: “I loved reading as a kid. I was a great fan of Rupert the Bear, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Then, at 14, I went straight on to Ray Bradbury, which probably explains a lot.”
Another domain that Jones dominated was history, and I loved the documentaries that he fronted in the late 90s and early noughties. But where Michael Wood, for example, would play it with a straight bat, Jones was always looking for a comedy treatment, endearingly.
Previewing his 2000 BBC Two documentary of ancient Rome, however, Jones told RT that truth was stranger than fiction. “The history of gladiators has been blatantly lifted from the scripts of Monty Python. For example, in Life of Brian we staged a gladiatorial contest in which a feeble retiarius (or “net-man”) is faced by a formidable gladiator. We thought it would be fun if the net-man simply took to his heels and ran round and round the amphitheatre until the gladiator, weighed down by his armour, ended up having a heart attack. Bit of theatre of the absurd, or so we thought.
“However, while filming Gladiators: the Brutal Truth, we discovered that almost nothing we could dream up was too far from the truth. Occasionally Christians were thrown to the lions only to find that the poor animals were in such a pathetic state of health they didn’t have the strength to finish anyone off. They might give the humans a terrible mauling, but they wouldn’t kill them. Christians intent on martyrdom would grab the lions by their manes and stick their heads in their mouths in order to force the creatures to do their duty.
“And that would be just the day’s warm-up. No, really! Throwing convicts to unpleasant deaths was strictly down-market entertainment – restricted to the warm-up sessions. In Life of Brian we called it ‘the Children’s Matinee’. We thought we were joking…”
But there were so many facets to Jones. Before he was diagnosed with dementia in 2015, he was still stretching himself, with a musical fantasy, more children’s books, poetry, and literary essays. As he told Radio Times, “I’m proud and relieved the Pythons have lasted so long. It enabled me to do a lot of academic stuff because I didn’t need to earn money.”
The breadth of Jones’s work is astonishing, and there was always something genial, friendly and lovable about his TV persona, but comedy fans love the fact that he made them laugh. “There are no taboo areas with humour, nothing you can’t make fun of,” he once told RT. “The only criterion is: is it funny? If people laugh, it is.”